“What a way to answer any critics – but I don’t think he’s worried about that at the moment.” – Mark Waugh, Fox Cricket
As David Warner celebrated his 26th Test century against Pakistan in Perth to put Australia in a commanding position on Day 1 of the first Test, his reaction could scarcely have been more pointed.
After a trademark leap as passionate as any in his career, Warner, never one to back away from a scrap, made a ‘shushing’ gesture at the Optus Stadium stands, a clear as daylight response to the vocal and at times extraordinary criticism levelled his way, most infamously by Mitchell Johnson, to begin his farewell lap as a Test cricketer.
Johnson, of course, made headlines for his no-holds-barred attack on the 37-year old, as notable for the swarms of ex-players, current teammates and cricket powerbrokers decrying the former paceman’s scorching hot take as for the even greater masses of cricket fans – and the occasional fellow pundit – generally agreeing with everything Johnson had to say.
Having ensured his last hurrah will get the ending he had appointed months past – he now has more than enough credits in the bank to retain his spot for the New Year’s Test in Sydney, if there was any doubt in the first place – Johnson will be hard-pressed to find any remaining sympathisers to his side of the argument in the court of public opinion.
When the player you described as a ‘struggling opener’ and ‘closer to a tailender’ in recent years makes not just a hundred, but a whopping 164 to define the opening day of the summer, chances are you’ll find your side somewhat deserted by the time it comes to an end.
Here’s the thing, though: while Warner’s spectacular innings undoubtedly defied those who questioned his place in the team, on no account did he prove any of Johnson’s arguments wrong – indeed, it would have been impossible to do so.
It was far from surprising that Warner made the score he did, nor at the explosive, dashing pace of the game-changing opener he was for much of the 2010s.
Of 32 Australian openers to have batted at least 15 times at the top of the order on home soil, Warner’s average of 60.13 is comfortably the best, well ahead of a similarly domineering left-hander in Matthew Hayden (57.88). Only Hayden has more centuries (21) than Warner’s 20, a stat that could well be matched or even usurped by the time the SCG Test concludes.
Similarly, Warner’s average of 88.56 – including six triple-figure scores – is better than anyone else in the history of the game to have batted at least 15 times against Pakistan. To call them his bunny side is an insult to Bugs – from gorging himself in Adelaide in 2019 with 335 not out to a rare overseas century on the tour of the UAE in 2014, the veteran has long bullied this proud cricketing nation into a pulp in all climes.
Nothing Johnson – or indeed, any other Warner critic – said in any way disputed that he was always a good chance to pile up the runs against Pakistan. Indeed, nothing he managed on Day 1 at Optus Stadium could change the most negative opinion possible to have on him – that he is a home-track bully boosting his numbers against an outmatched opponent, and that Cricket Australia were wrong to not move him on after far more mediocre efforts in India and England earlier this year.
After all, of 30 Australians to have opened at least 15 times away from home, Warner’s average (32.87) sits 24th: only Shane Watson, Bruce ‘Stumpy Laird’, Andrew Hilditch, and three guys from the sticky-wicket era of the 1800s and early 1900s sit below him.
It’s practically half of what he averages at home – that drops even further when restricted to just India and England, the two toughest tours of Warner’s era, where he has a combined haul of… zero centuries.
“As we prepare for David Warner’s farewell series, can somebody please tell me why? Why a struggling Test opener gets to nominate his own retirement date. And why a player at the centre of one of the biggest scandals in Australian cricket history warrants a hero’s send-off?” Johnson wrote in the West Australian.
All of that was true – if harsh – when he wrote it, and it remains true now.
Your opinion on Warner’s role in, and level of blame for, Sandpapergate may not be as adamant as Johnson’s; but what can’t be denied is his diminishing returns in Test cricket in all conditions since early 2020.
Including this latest century, since the COVID-19 pandemic began Warner has averaged 31.97 (it was 28.91 heading to Perth). That’s lower than 13 of the top 14 openers, in terms of run-scoring, in that time frame – the oft-criticised Zak Crawley (30.17) the one exception.
A similarly poor record saw another experienced opener, India’s KL Rahul, jettisoned mid-series against Australia earlier this year: at the time of writing, he hasn’t returned.
It was, and remains, entirely reasonable to suggest Warner had used up any remaining credits his glittering career had left, especially given his age has often been the catalyst in recent Australian history to jettison batters with far better records late in their careers. Anyone remember Simon Katich? Shane Watson? Heck, remember pre-renaissance Usman Khawaja?
It’s an infinite monkeys, infinite typewriters situation: international-standard players will eventually make a substantial score if given enough chances. Martin Guptill has three Test centuries, as an example.
Warner was always going to come good, most likely in familiar conditions he has dominated in the past against an opponent that remains his favourite by some distance.
This last tour specifically was a golden ticket for him to succeed – he could hardly have scripted it better.
Johnson’s main gripe, remember, wasn’t so much at Warner’s continued presence in the team as it was his having already nominated his sign-off date.
“Does this really warrant a swansong, a last hurrah against Pakistan that was forecast a year in advance as if he was bigger than the game and the Australian cricket team?” he wrote.
Johnson might have got overly personal with some of his more vehement accusations against Warner, but the point was this: did someone with Warner’s recent record really deserve the chance to mark his own end date, which coincided nicely with the first half of a summer that was likely always going to be of the ‘fill your boots’ variety?
Ahead of tough challenges to come – an overseas tour of New Zealand early next year plus home series against India and England in the next 24 months the most obvious examples – it’s perfectly reasonable to think the best path for Australian cricket’s long-term prosperity would be to use this easier-looking summer to allow the next opener up – probably Cameron Bancroft – a chance to find his feet and establish a partnership with Khawaja… while giving time to find an alternate if he proved not up to the standard.
Warner himself was allowed to ease into Test cricket with a pair of matches first up on home soil against a then-raw New Zealand pace attack, then a pre-Jasprit Bumrah India at the end of a golden era.
That that was possible was down to Katich being, unfairly in the eyes of many, shunted out of the Australian fold despite an excellent Test record in the 12 months prior. A record Warner’s pales in comparison to.
Warner’s most fervent supporters will argue that his Day 1 century proves the selectors right to allow him his farewell tour, that he remains one of the best two openers in the country, that Johnson and his fellow critics deserve lashings of humble pie for a take that blew up in their own faces – and on all counts, they have a point.
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The truth, though is more complicated: it’s unlikely Bancroft would have dominated Pakistan to the extent Warner did on Day 1 (he surely would have struggled to replicated his former partner’s high scoring rate at least), and possible that replacement would have left Pakistan in a much stronger position after Day 1 than they are now, given the squandered starts of so many of his teammates.
Warner’s superb century was, without question, one that defied his critics, Johnson included.
But it didn’t prove them wrong.